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Reflections on Interfaith Sacred Space

By Key Lindahl

Is genuine interfaith space possible? What might a space designed to accommodate the needs of all faiths look like? The first interfaith sacred space competition took place in response to these questions. Sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter; EURIMA (Expressing the United Religions Initiative in Music and the Arts); the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, and in partnership with the Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions (CPWR) and the United Religions Initiative (URI), this competition received 159 entries from 17 countries.

The objectives that entrants were asked to address were:

  • To design a space that will:
    1. Inspire people to practice their own faith traditions, alone or as a single faith group or with other faiths;
    2. Assure that people from all traditions will feel comfortable, welcome and respected.
  • To design a space that will also:
    1. Provide opportunities for people to meet and share
    2. Offer an open, hospitable setting
    3. Provide an atmosphere which encourages cooperation
    4. Offer a model of interreligious cooperation
    5. Demonstrate a commitment to common values and a willingness to collaborate to promote world peace.
    6. Provide for sacred space needs for all faiths

This was a competition of ideas, imagination and vision. As one of ten jurors, I was challenged to discover my own view of interfaith sacred space. My reflections come from my interfaith heart and soul, my immersion in the interfaith movement for the past twelve years, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

The first question I asked myself was: What are the qualities of sacred space?

The two qualities that occurred to me are that it's organic and it's unlimited. It's organic in that you never know what's going to happen, and yet something happens. It develops a life of its own. It's unlimited in that it can happen in any place and at any time. The paradox for both qualities is that on the one hand it can take hours and hours of planning to create the environment and process to ensure safe space and on the other hand it happens spontaneously.

The next question I asked myself was: How does sacred space occur in daily life?

My response to this question was to first investigate secular sacred space. What are the spaces and times when I have felt the presence of the sacred in secular settings. Four experiences came to mind immediately.

  1. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Walking up to that wall evokes a presence. Something happens at that site.
  2. The gate surrounding St. Paul's Chapel opposite the World Trade Center in New York City in 2002. People from around the world contributed hats, posters, momentos, photos of loved ones, and words of encouragement that were attached to the gate. Somehow there was a connection that occured. Something happened.
  3. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Walking, almost processing, through the museum leads to a sense of the sacred. Everyone is very respectful, thoughtful, reverent. Something happens.
  4. The Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA. Walking into the concert hall is breathtaking. The creativity and imagination that went into the design and created a space that seats over 2,000 and yet feels intimate and connecting. Something happens.

Each of these spaces is public and secular and yet something happens when you are there, experiencing the moment.

The next question was: Where have you experienced interfaith sacred space? Again, six experiences came to mind immediately.

  1. The Palmer House Hotel in Chicago in 1993 when 8,000 people from all over the world and as many faith traditions as you can imagine converged in this one place for the second Parliament of the World's Religions, 100 years after the first was held. Encounters occurred on elevators, stairways, hallways, escalators, meeting rooms and the dramatic high celinged lobby, that transformed people. Something happened.
  2. The high ceilinged glass enclosed rotunda of City Hall in Edmonton, Canada in 1998 during the North American Interfaith Network Annual Meeting when members of over 10 faith traditions offered prayers for the whole community. Something happened.
  3. Processions in Cape Town, South Africa at the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions, at Stanford University for URI Summits, in Pittsburgh, PA for the signing of the URI Global Charter in 2000 and in Rio de Janiero, Brazil for the 1st Global Assembly of the URI in 2002. In each case, hundreds of people from dozens of faith traditions walked together through public streets as a way of honoring the events and the community. Something happened on those walks as we talked to each other and to people in the community.
  4. Outdoor blessings under the sky. Many interfaith events begin with an outdoor blessing, usually led by the indigenous people of the area. These events evoke a special feeling of awe for the earth and all living beings. They often set the tone for the rest of the gathering. Something happens.
  5. On a more local note, just after 9/11 our grassroots interfaith group contacted the city to offer to facilitate a vigil in honor of those who died. It was held in an outdoor amphitheater of a community park. Over 700 people came and heard prayers from over 12 faith traditions. We closed with lighting candles and singing. The park became a sacred space. Something happened.
  6. Each year on January 1st, our interfaith group sponsors a Peace Day event. It is held in a local church. For two or so hours we invite people from diverse faith traditions to share their spiritual practices with us. We sit in concentric circles with a candle in the center. At the close this year we invited everyone to stand in one large circle to share a final blessings. Magically the chairs were moved and we were all standing together, nearly 100 of us, in this amazing circle of diversity. As we looked around at each other, we all knew that something special had happened. We were in sacred space.

What does all of this say about the ingredients for Interfaith Sacred Space? I think that there are four elements. First is worship space, such as in an interfaith chapel. This space has to be very flexible as the needs of traditions vary. Some of the considerations are: seating that can be moved, no fixed orientation or altar, option to open to outdoors, availability of carpets, use of candles, lights, fire, water, high ceilings and some opening to the sky.

Second is gathering space. It is an important part of interfaith sacred space to encounter others, indoors or outdoors, in small groups and large groups.

Third is the importance of the circle as a way to gather. It is an egalitarian way to meet, no one is at the head. It is reclaiming an ancient way of being together.

Fourth is connection to adjoining public parks or streets suitable for processing, weaving the sacred space with the surrounding space.

The competition offered an opportunity for interaction between architects and interfaith participants. Our differing perspectives resulted in a dynamic, interesting and challenging process. Each entrant also had a specific perspective on interfaith sacred space. Over the course of a weekend we were able to come up with four winning designs and seven honorable mentions.

This is just the beginning of a conversation about what makes Interfaith Sacred Space. We are starting to learn what works, what supports, nurtures and cultivates this kind of space. We also know that it just happens when people of good will gather. Awareness is the key to the unfolding of this amazing journey.

Submitted by Kay Lindahl, a Global Council Trustee for the URI, Chair-Elect for the North American Interfaith Network, and President of the Alliance for Spiritual Community. She is also an ordained interfaith minister, founder of The Listening Center, and the author of The Sacred Art of Listening: Forty Reflections for Cultivating a Spiritual Practice and Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening: A Guide to Enrich Your Relationships and Kindle Your Spiritual Life.

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